SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
July 22, 2007

The Scariest Haunted House Ever

 

There was no getting around it. Even as a fairly antisocial youngster, I knew and had some regular interaction with every single kid within a five block radius of my house. Every kid between seven and twelve, anyway—and there were a bunch of them.

      Idyllic as life could be for an eight year-old in a small Wisconsin town of the 1970s—big back yards, carp fishing in the stream, playgrounds that weren’t littered with needles and dog shit—interacting with all those other kids could at times make things as complicated as any adult’s existence.

      You had to navigate your way around the bullies and sissies, the liars and backstabbers, the good-hearted and stupid, the smart kids, the hapless kids, the retards, the thick necks and those few kids in any town who are just plain evil. Funny thing is that much more than in the case of adults, the kids were very malleable. Your best friend one week could be your deadliest enemy the next, and the neighborhood bully could become your new best friend, all for no apparent reason. It just sort of happened. It was a constant flow of shifting allegiances and changing identities. Sometimes it was hard to keep track of it all.

      Because of that, it was always best to try and figure out who was what before you had any serious dealings with them. Being eight, I didn’t fully realize this at the time, which I guess made me one of the “hapless” kids.

      One summer afternoon Eric, who lived directly across the street, and Timmy, who lived three houses up, showed up at the back door of the duplex to tell me that the Ferguson kids had set up a haunted house in their basement. It was really scary, they told me, and only cost a nickel.

      I had never cared much for the Ferguson kids. They lived in a shabby gray two story house a couple blocks up the hill, and always struck me as a weasel-faced lot—always a little too dirty and a little too mean. But I trusted Eric and Timmy. Besides, I had no plans that day, and the prospect of going to a homemade haunted house seemed promising. The fact that Halloween—when local kids usually set up their own haunted houses—was over three months away wasn’t an issue. I was always up for something fun and scary. Who knows? Maybe they would turn out to be decent kids after all, those Fergusons. So I got a nickel from my mom and headed up the hill with Eric and Timmy. The sky was overcast and the air was humid.

      When we reached the spooky old house, Eric knocked on the side door. A moment later Andrea, the oldest of the Ferguson kids at twelve, peered through the screen at us. She had dirty blond hair she apparently cut herself and an enormous, almost bulbous forehead.

      “Yeah?”

      “Knip-Knop here wants to see the haunted house,” Eric said. (I really hated being called “Knip-Knop,” but it was better than some of the other things I got called.)

      Andrea looked at me briefly, then said “Wait here. We gotta get ready. It’ll take a few minutes. You got a nickel?”

      She opened the screen door a crack and stuck her hand out. I dropped the nickel into her palm. She yanked the door shut again and disappeared.

      I was starting to get a bad feeling about things, but didn’t dare say anything to Eric and Timmy, knowing full well they’d call me chicken, then start spreading the word around the neighborhood. I knew I had to play it as cool as possible.

      Five minutes later, Andrea reappeared at the screen door and opened it. “Okay, you can go in now.”

      We walked down a flight of creaky wooden steps to a closed door, then stopped.

      “Are you guys coming in too?” I asked Eric and Timmy.

      “Uh-uh,” Timmy said, smiling.

      “Yeah, we’ve already been through it,” Eric said, likewise grinning. “It wouldn’t be scary anymore.”

      “Oh,” I said, turning back to the door. The bad feeling spiked. Then, working up as much courage as my eight year-old heart could muster, I turned the handle and pulled the door open. Inside, it was completely black. I stepped in.

      The door slammed shut behind me, and I was swallowed up in the impenetrable darkness. Before I had a chance to react to anything someone slapped me in the face with both hands. I felt something thick and wet on my cheeks. A sweet stench began filling my nostrils. Then someone stuck something sharp into my back, between my shoulder blades. (Later I would learn it had been a chicken foot.)

      “Ow! Hey! Wha—”

      My feet were knocked out from beneath me, and I was on my back on what felt like an old blanket on the cement floor.

      At least two sets of feet—maybe more—began kicking at me as I tried to roll away. It was no use. The feet seemed to be coming from every direction. I remember thinking that it wasn’t scary at all—at least not the way it was supposed to be.

      Still—and this is the weird part—while I was on the floor being kicked, as the stench coming off me grew steadily worse, my eyes still roamed frantically around the black room, looking for something that was scary in the traditional haunted house way. A mummy, a big spider, anything. I was still convinced that I hadn’t paid a nickel to get beat up—I’d paid a nickel to go to a spooky haunted house, and dammit, that’s what I was going to get.

      Then I found something. My eyes latched onto a ghost on the other side of the room. It wasn’t moving, but still glowed with some internal amber light. My eyes held onto that ghost for some reason, even as the kicking stopped and the punching began.

      Finally I pushed my assailants away and got to my feet.

      “Get these dummies offa me!” I shrieked, feeling foolish even as I did so.

      The door I’d come through opened again. I still couldn’t see anything around me, but I saw the bright light of the doorway and headed for it. Only Timmy was standing there now; Eric was gone. I walked past him without saying a word.

      I stomped up the stairs, out the door, and ran down the sidewalk toward home, tears beginning to blur my vision. I wasn’t badly hurt beyond a few aches and pains, but the thick stench in my nostrils was almost unbearable, and whatever was on my cheeks was drying, pulling the skin tight.

      I slammed through our back door and headed straight for the bathroom. I turned on the hot water. Then I looked in the mirror and saw that my face was covered with ketchup.

      Everything I’d suspected about the Ferguson kids had been confirmed. I of course never dealt with them again. I didn’t deal with Eric or Timmy either. Well, not for a week or so anyway, and not until Timmy showed up at the back door again to apologize and blame the whole thing on Eric. Then we all pretty much forgot about it.

      At one point weeks afterwards, I remember telling Timmy that I thought the ghost they had up on the wall was the scariest thing in the haunted house—that it was a really impressive bit of special effects.

      “What are you talking about?” He looked genuinely confused, and I described the ghost to him.

      “Oh,” he said, “that wasn’t supposed to be a ghost—that was just a blanket they’d hung over the window to make it dark.”

      I should’ve figured.

      The one thing that pissed me off most about the incident in the Ferguson’s basement wasn’t the fact that I’d been beat up, or that I’d paid a nickel to get beat up, or even that I’d been so viciously betrayed. The thing that pissed me off most was the fact that I couldn’t go near ketchup again for ten years after that.

 

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